Show me the color of your right hand, pt. I

5 07 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, after excerpting a story of his experience with racism, has invited his readers to submit their own experiences. A misreading of this invitation (“talk about your experiences with race”)  prompted the following response from me. I thought I’d whittle it down and submit it, but upon re-reading his post, it’s clear my response isn’t on target and so won’t be submitted. Still, I thought it worth posting. Here’s part I:

I didn’t know I was white until I was an adult.

Even now, long into adulthood, I’m not always so sure.

As a kid in the 1970s, growing up in almost completely white town in a mostly white state, I knew I was white—but white meant pale, white was set against tan, not black. White was about the sun, and the more sun—the tanner you were—the better.

I could get a decent tan (we used suntan lotion back in the day, not sunscreen, and only until we had a base tan: then we’d switch over to baby oil), but mostly I found laying out boring. I wanted a tan to look better, to not be white, but it was a hassle not being white. You had to work at not being white, so while I worked enough not to look sickly—pale—I never achieved the glorious tans of some of my friends.

I wasn’t completely oblivious of race back then. We had a t.v., after all, and on trips to or through Milwaukee I would see black people; on family trips around the country I’d encounter black people, and they were utterly other to me. I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t particularly taught to be afraid by my parents, but it was always a little thrilling to talk to a black person like it was a normal thing to do.

*Caveat: I am running off of memory, This is how I remember the experience, today; how I actually experienced it, in the moment, is gone.

“Nigger” was not used in the Peterson household. No nigger jokes, no racial jokes, generally. Did we say “nigger pile” when we three kids jumped into my parents’ bed on Sunday mornings, or were we admonished not to? Did we change the words to “eeny meeny miney moe”? I don’t remember*. I do remember my dad telling us about the separate drinking fountains in San Angelo, Texas, where he served for awhile in the Air Force. There was at least one black man in his unit.

I liked to imagine, later, that it was this experience, along with, perhaps, seeing on t.v. the brutality of white resistance to civil rights protesters, that set my parents against racist talk, but I don’t know. It’s not something we talked much about.

My time at college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was my first sustained exposure to black people. Some lived in my dorm, some taught my classes, some worked at The Daily Cardinal, but however friendly we might have been with one another, we weren’t really friends. I was always conscious of their race; I had barely begun to think I, too, had a race.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I thought, truly, to do something about my other-consciousness, which meant admitting my self-consciousness. I remember reading a bit in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune of a white woman who, while waiting for a bus, thrust out her arm and screamed out STOP! at a young black man running up to her, intent, she was sure, on stealing her purse. He was, of course, only running to catch the bus, but this woman justified her scream with a well-he-could-have. . . .

I was scornful of this woman. Of course he was only running to catch the bus, how racist could she be? But if I wouldn’t have screamed like that woman did, I might have had the thought behind the scream. I knew that when I looked at one black person I saw every black person. They were all the same to me, I admitted, and if that wasn’t racism, little was.

I didn’t want to be racist, and knew that whatever good anti-racist politics I might hold, if every black person I saw was every black person, I was a racist.

Cont.





Feeling groovy

24 02 2012

How long does it take to carve oneself into a place?

I’ve been in New York for over 5 years, and only very recently has it begun—begun—in some small way to feel like mine.

This wasn’t something to which I paid much attention in my early wanderings. Madison was the first stop out of SmallTown and I loved it unreservedly, threw my whole self into what seemed the far shore of previous life.

Minneapolis? I did not love, less for its Minneapolisness than for the fact that a) it was not Madison (where my friends were having fun in their fifth year of school) and b) it was the location of graduate school, where I was not having fun.

Albuquerque was so brief—11 months—that it felt more like an interlude to life than life itself. I wasn’t particularly happy to trek back to Minneapolis, but I knew the place, had friends there, had more-or-less (mostly less) of a life there.

The 2 bus down Franklin to campus, the 52 back to Lyndale, or maybe a bus to downtown, then the 15 up Nicollet. The bike route past the convention center, through downtown, sneaking up to the West Bank from behind, then over the river and over the bridge to the gym. Or hopping into my car and on to the interstate to get to campus, scoping out the few all-day spots scattered around Riverside or at least trying for a 4-hour spot.

The diners at Cedar-Riverside, the bars at Seven Corners, Electric Fetus for cds and the 3 used bookstores in Uptown, this one good for memoir, that one for fiction and philosophy, the other one for history of science. Walks through Loring Park and over the bridge to the Sculpture Garden. Swimming in Cedar Lake. All of my friends, oh, all of my friends.

I never adored Minneapolis, but at some point I wore a groove into to the place, a path which became my life.

I did adore Montreal, had my routes and habits, but Montreal was so easy that I wonder if I ever really took my life there seriously at all. I could make my impressions—feet on sand, boots in snow—but a wave or a wind and I was gone.

Then again, with my departure built into my arrival, I was free to swim its surfaces, to rove over the island trying to soak in every last bit of its sublime beauty; I passed through Montreal and let Montreal pass through me.

Somerville and Boston? No, no chance, not for me.

And then, Brooklyn. Unprepared and upside down but determined to make this place stick, to make myself stick. I told a friend last night that it might have been a terrible decision to move here but it wasn’t a mistake. I had to know, I told her.

Still, while a part me locked into the city, there were many more parts which were just. . . alienated? uncomfortable? suppressed? I tried consciously to create habits of living, but that felt fake; I acted as if this were already home, but that was a lie.

I wanted New York to be home, and it wasn’t. It still isn’t.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed that my path is, in some places, noticeably smoother. There are places I know, places I count on without knowing I count on them, friends who are true friends.

Another friend told me, before I moved here, that New York is a hard place, and she was right, it is a hard place. But I can run my hand over this ground and feel, for the first time, the ground begin to give.





More stuff from my bulletin board

9 08 2011

J. Solomon, from an old (late 1980s) Daily Cardinal. This is the waxed version, lifted off the page (after it went to print) one of the nights I served as night editor.

I gave a copy of it to my therapist at the time; she was amused.

From a mid-1990s trip west with L., S., and J. Sally told us about her son in Minneapolis, and encouraged us to get our own coffee (which we then offered to other diners at her fine establishment). Other locals regaled us with tales of stupid tourists, which we, as presumably not-stupid tourists, greatly enjoyed.

S. thought she had a tick and asked me to check her head. I saw something, but didn’t think it was a tick. I told her to check it out. (Later, when I found out that ticks aren’t always black or brown, I thought, Oh, that might have been a tick.)

Dubois is on the way out of Yellowstone Grand Tetons National Park and is, of course, pronounced Do-boys.

Self-explanatory. Don’t think I ever wore it, though. I think it’s only ever been on my bulletin board.

I think this one was pulled from the Madison weekly—The Isthmus, I think.

Or it coulda been from the Twin Cities Reader.

Either way, I was full of mental anguish at the time.

Really wish I hadn’t cut off the person quoted. I think this is from the Village Voice.

First time I heard this basic philosophy expressed in so pithy a manner.

I do like it.

From L., I think.

And, just because.